Glass skin. It sounds a little like an insult – an extension of glass jaw. Or perhaps a cocktail, if you were into that sort of thing. But if you’ve hopped on a certain corner of Instagram lately, you’d know, it’s a beauty term; a trend, which describes a luminous, polished, poreless complexion – one that is so smooth as to resemble glass.
It reached a level of prominence in the beauty vlogger community in 2017, but originated in South Korea, land of the 10-step skincare routine, around six years ago, where it is looked upon as a “skin ideal.” Several beauty corporations have developed their own products to mimic the appearance of glass skin and have instructions on how to achieve the look on their websites (using their products, of course).
The New York Times, in a piece titled “Everyone Is Crazy for Glass Skin. Here’s How to Get the Look”, credits its emergence to viral Instagram posts. One such poster was Ellie Choi, a Los Angeles-based makeup artist, whose routine for “glass skin” received 20,000 likes and numerous reposts on Twitter and Instagram.
In a caption, underneath her light-refracting cheek, Choi explained that she “double cleanses” (yes, that means she’s cleansing twice) before applying a toner, an exfoliating mask, and, finally, a sheet mask to achieve the look – although we have no way of knowing how many filters were used in the making of Choi’s selfie.
And this is, perhaps, the key to why the trend exists in the first place. Ask any dermatologist and they’ll tell you: pore size is largely genetic and not something you can “cleanse” away. The only way you can achieve a flawless skin tone is either through makeup, extensive skin laser therapy, injectibles (such as Botox) or a variety of filters on Instagram. And beauty “influencers” are making use of all of these options.
Because youth is no longer a salve against the self-hatred of ordinary skin. If it were, the glass trend would be popular only with the middle aged, but it’s most popular with millennials.
Once, it was enough to agonise over pimples; perhaps an eyebrow that wouldn’t behave. Now, with the stratospheric rise of Instagram filters, pores, laugh lines – any sort of defining feature, really – is no longer tolerable.
What a dark and pernicious thing it is to base a trend on what is, essentially, a fiction. Even if you do have an incredibly taut, shiny face after cleansing 50 times, a person’s skin is not glassy and smooth 24 hours of the day – at least not outside of Instagram.
We’ve fought so hard for diversity in bodies. That fight in ongoing, (Nike’s recent mannequin is evidence of this). Are we forgetting that skin is part of that fight? Why are we now cutting the fight off at our necks? Why can’t we see the danger of projecting this untenable blandness, marketed as perfection, on to the faces of the often very young women, (and men) whose prefrontal cortex – the most rational part of the brain – is not fully developed until they’re around 25?
The answer is hiding in plain sight. It is precisely because we now see different body shapes and colours in advertising and media that glass skin has become so aspirational. As Naomi Wolf wrote: “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.”
But as the culture slowly pivots from thinness as the sole barometer of attractiveness and toward sexuality, or “hotness”, as a beauty ideal, it’s women willing to show some skin who’ve emerged as the most successful.
Kim Kardashian West, and her sister Kylie Jenner (now a billionaire thanks to her cosmetics), Rihanna (now the highest earning female musician thanks to her makeup sales) and model Ashley Graham (a “face” of Revlon) have achieved this by cultivating a faux intimacy via Instagram, overemphasising their sexuality, and focusing on their faces.
The message appears to be: “Yes, I have more flesh, but don’t be afraid – for the flesh is perfect!”
The truth is, the obsession with women’s obedience never wanes, it only changes location. And right now, compliance looks like perfect skin.
Advertising doesn’t work unless you first accept something is wrong. And if cosmetics and Instagram technology already exist to eradicate pimples, lines and freckles, then the benchmark for what is unacceptable gets moved. It might be worth remembering that the place the trend began, South Korea, has the highest rate of plastic surgeries in the world.
Glass skin is not simply the erasure of ordinary faces, or the desire to look youthful. It is the final tilt towards grand objectification. For what is glass but an object? The aim is to look unhuman. Fifty years after the feminist backlash over Barbie, we’ve upgraded. We no longer pressure women to look plastic – we understand that’s unrealistic. We now require a deeper fragility – one that’s transparent. Breakable.
We want glass.
• Natalie Reilly is a freelance journalist who has been writing about the beauty industry for more than a decade